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Other Sunday and Holy Day Readings

(When this feast falls on a Saturday, these Biblical passages are read for the Sunday Vigil Mass)

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Psalm 24:1-5
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The Theme of the Readings: Our Communion with the Saints
Those who are "saints" (etym. Latin sanctus = holy, sacred) in the broad use of the definition, are all Christians who, as "holy people," are alive now or were alive in the past and whose lives were transformed by Jesus Christ (Col 1:2).  Included in the definition of "saints" are the Old Testament faithful who waited for the coming of the Messiah and received His message of salvation from the grave (Mt 27:52-53; 1 Pt 3:19-20; 4:6; Apostles' Creed).  But those who are honored on the Feast of All Saints are all those who have died, have stood before God's throne of judgment, and have been deemed worthy to enter into the Beatific Vision in the heavenly kingdom.  The Church recognizes the "holy ones" who live in the presence of God through her ordinary universal teaching authority and by canonization, a solemn definition of sainthood in which the Church officially recognizes that particular person's sanctity and implies that the soul of that person is now in heavenly glory.  With the Church's official recognition, the covenant people are encouraged to emulate the lives of the saints (CCC 2030), and prayers of petition may be made to certain saints to pray on the behalf of the petitioner who is a member of the earth-bound Church (CCC 956; 2683). Those holy souls are members of the Church Glorious who now live in the presence of God and with whom we will be united either when our life on earth is completed and we are judged worthy to enter into the host of saints and angels in Heaven or when Christ returns to gather the elect into His heavenly Kingdom.

The Solemnity of All Saints is among those feasts designated a Holy Day of Obligation in which faithful Catholics must attend Mass (CCC 2042, 2177, 2180).  However, in years when a Holy Day of Obligation fall on a Saturday or a Monday, the Bishops of the United States and in some other countries have received permission from the Vatican to abrogate (temporarily waive) the requirement of Mass attendance.  Catholics in other countries should check with the priests of your Parish or the Diocese to determine whether the obligation remains in effect.  Even in those years when we aren't required to attend Mass on All Saints Day, celebrating by attending Mass is a wonderful way to honor the saints who are members of our heavenly family and who intercede with God on our behalf (Heb 12:1). 

The First Reading Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14 ~ The Saints in Heaven
2 I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God.  3 He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, "Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God."  4 I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites.

9 After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.  They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb."  11 All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.  12 They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: "Amen.  Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever.  Amen."  13 Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, "Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?"  I said to him, "My lord, you are the one who knows."  He said to me, "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

The word "messenger" in Greek is angelos (from which we get our word "angel") and in Hebrew it is malak.  According to Jewish tradition, angels who are God's messengers are divided into 2 groups.  Both groups are represented in verses 1-3: 

  1. Angels who were God's agents for controlling the forces of nature (verse 1)
  2. Angels of the Presence and Sanctification (verses 2-3)

In verses 1-2, St. John has a vision of four messengers/angels who are restrained from bringing judgment by another angel who St. John see coming from the East where the sun rises and from where God's actions in history traditionally come forth (Is 41:1-4, 25; 46:11; Ez 43:1-3).  It is also the direction in which the desert Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem faced (Ex 27:13; Num 3:38).  This powerful "messenger" comes from the east where the sun rises and the "day" begins, perhaps signaling a "new day" or a "new age."  He either comes, as some scholars suggest, as the representative of Christ or as others suggest he comes as Christ Himself.  The angel/messenger carries the seal of the living God (verse 3), in other words, He possesses the Spirit without measure.  It is the same "seal of the Spirit" we receive in Christian Baptism.  In John 6:27 Jesus declared that He was marked with His Father's seal.  Also see another reference to Christians marked with a seal in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and refer to CCC 698, 1121, and 1295-96

Historically and Biblically a seal was:

  1. A symbol of a person:  persons of importance had their own seals either carved into a ring, or a small seal object, or carved into a devise and worn with a chain around their necks.  This personal emblem could be impressed on a document to show ownership or authority as in an order to command.
  2. Roman soldiers were marked with their unit's seal or the seal of the Emperor.
  3. Slaves were marked with their owner's seals in the form of a brand or tattoo.
  4. Trade guild members were sometimes sealed (tattooed) with a mark indicating their membership.
  5. A seal also authenticated a juridical act or document (like a will) and occasionally made it secret (see 1 Kng 21:8; Is 29:11; Jer 32:10).
  6. God's holy prophets were marked or sealed by God (1 Kng 20:41; Is 44:5; Zec 13:6).
  7. Under the Old Covenants with Abraham and the Sinai Covenant, circumcision was seen as a seal identifying membership in the covenant (Gen 17:9-12; Lev 12:3).
  8. In the New Covenant in Christ, the Christian receives an indelible mark or seal of the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders (CCC 1121; 1272-74, 1280).  This Dominicus character is necessary "for the day of redemption" (CCC 1274; Eph 4:30; 2 Cor 1:21-22).

We can summarize by saying that this messenger:

  1. Possesses the Spirit without measure.
  2. He marks out the righteous as His own possession.
  3. By his order the judgments on the land are not fully poured out until His messengers have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads!  It is understandable why most commentators see this "angel/messenger" as Jesus Christ. The seal of the Holy Spirit covers the righteous before the seals of wrath are applied to the wicked: Pentecost precedes Holocaust!  See Eph 1:13 and 4:30.

This passage in Revelation verses 1-3 has the same imagery and message as Ezekiel chapters 7-9 in which God gives Ezekiel a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587/6 BC but not before those who are righteous are marked with a taw (literal translation in Ez 9:4; can also be spelled tav; it is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet and it is in the form of a cruciform).  The early Church Father, Tertullian, (writing between AD 197-220) believed that God had given Ezekiel "the very form of the cross, which He predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem" (Tertullian, Against Marcion, iii.22, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol III, pp. 340ff. 

In the ancient world to mark anything with the "seal" of a person indicated ownership, or power, or authority, or a guarantee of protection.  In this case all three cases apply.  As in the case of Ezekiel's vision in 9:4, which parallels John's vision, the godly are marked as God's possessions for protection by His authority and for the same purpose as in Ezekiel, in order that the apostates in Jerusalem may be destroyed. 

The Seal of God on the foreheads (verse 3) also has special significance.  A mark on the forehead is a symbol of man restored to fellowship with God or a symbol of God's protection.  One example of this was the High Priest in the Old Covenant who wore on his forehead a band with gold letters proclaiming that he was "holy," meaning "sanctified" or "consecrated" to Yahweh (Ex 28:36).  Then too, in Deuteronomy 6:6-8 all God's people are sealed on the forehead and on the hand with the law of God as they were commanded to wear the first profession of faith, called the Shema, in little boxes attached to their foreheads and warped with leather straps on their right hands.  These are called teffelim in Hebrew (or phylacteries in Greek) and are still worn by Orthodox Jews today.  The literal act of wearing the word of God on their foreheads and arms commanded in Deuteronomy symbolized a life characterized by faithful obedience in thought and action to every word of God.  A third example would be the mark that God place on the forehead of Cain in Genesis 4:15, So Yahweh put a mark on Cain, so that no one coming across him would kill him (NJB).

For those of us who are raised to life in the New Covenant, holy Baptism in which we receive the seal of the Holy Spirit marks us as believers and as the covenant keeping bond-servants of our God who will be preserved from God's wrath when the ungodly are destroyed.   In our passage in Revelation, the sealing of the godly was not to save them from tribulation; just as in Ezekiel's time the godly that were sealed still faced the exile to Babylon.  God's messenger sealed the godly to preserve the true Israel of God as a holy seed, saved from the Old Israel to become the "first fruits" (see Rev 14:4) those invited into the New Covenant.  Even though the old Israel will perish, the New and holy Israel, the catholic= universal Church, is to be chosen and sealed with the Spirit of the living God.  

4 I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites.

In verse 4 we are told that the 144,000 to be sealed are 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  This is obviously a symbolic number from 12 x 12 x 1000. 12 is the number of governmental perfection while 10, and its multiples, is symbolic for perfection of order.  The symbolic number 144,000 makes use of the perfect number 12 = divine perfection in (governmental) order.  12 is also the number of Israel, descended by the 12 physical fathers of Jacob/Israel.  The number of Israel is squared, then multiplied by 1,000 (the number 10 and its multiples reflect divine perfection in cardinal order).  Multiples of 10 always symbolize abundance in perfection of divine order (see Dt 1:11; 7:9; Ps 50:10; 68:17; 84:10; 90:4).  In this symbolic number, we are given the ideal Israel.  It is Israel as it was meant to be in all its perfection and completeness as the holy army of God when each of the 12 tribes is able to field 12 full divisions in a numerically perfect divine army of soldiers for Yahweh!  The unit of a thousand was, after all, the basic military division of the camp of Israel (see Num 10:2-4, 35-36; 31:1-5, 48-54; 2 Sam 18:1; 1 Chr 12:20; 13:1; 15:25; 26:26; 27:1; 28:1; 29:6; 2 Chr 1:2; 17:14-19; Ps 68:17

It is unclear exactly who the 144,000 represent.  We are told that they are collected from the 12 tribes of Israel and that they are specifically marked by God.  There are various interpretations:

  1. Some commentators believe they are those who are the New Israel; those (Jews and Gentiles) baptized into the New Covenant which Paul speaks about in Galatians 6:15-16: It is not being circumcised or uncircumcised that matters; but what matters is a new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this as their rule and to the Israel of God (also Gal 3:6-9, 29; 4:21-31; Rom 9:6-8).
  2. Other commentators interpret them as being Christians of Jewish background or those Jews who will become Christians; the holy remnant of old Israel who became the new Israel (Is 4:2-4; Ez ch. 9). This new Israel has been inaugurated by the descendants of Jacob who accepted the Messiah and received baptism over the course of history.  However, these are not the only ones to receive salvation.  The Gentiles who become Christians over the course of history appear in the next vision and that is why I think the second interpretation is more likely correct. 

It is likely that these are the ones that Paul calls the "first-fruits" of the restoration in Romans 11:25-32; the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  In John's next vision the 144,000 are part of the great multitude "from every nation, race, people, and tongue."  They are Jewish and Gentile Christians united in the family of God. 

9 After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.  They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb." 
St. John uses the literary device of "hearing" then "seeing" (used previously in Rev 1:10-13; 5:5-6; 6:1-8; in Is 6:9-10 and repeatedly in St. Mark's Gospel).  In verse 4 John wrote:  4 I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, then After this, after hearing the number of the redeemed, I had a vision of a great multitude in verse 9.  John has heard the "things that are" and now he sees "the things that are to come." 

In another sense John has heard the people of God who are definitely numbered; none of the elect are missing or unaccounted for, and the Church is perfectly symmetrical and whole.  But now, from another standpoint, the Church is innumerable, a great multitude which no one could count (verse 9).  From one perspective the Church is the New, True Israel of God: the lost sons of Jacob (Israel) gathered into Christ, full and complete.  From another perspective, equally true, the Church is the whole world:  a great uncountable multitude redeemed from every nation, race, people, and tongue.  Initially John's vision can only referred to a part of the whole: to those Jews who by accepting Christ as Messiah make up the original nucleus of the Universal Church, but now in verses 9-12 he see the whole Church without any differences or distinctions.  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy to Abraham in Genesis 15:5 that those who inherit the blessing of Abraham are as numberless as the stars of the heavens and in Genesis 22:17-18 that the whole world will be blessed when the Church becomes the whole world!  The salvation of Israel alone had never been God's intention.  He sent His Son "that the world should be saved through Him" (Jn 3:16-17).  It is what God the Father said to God the Son in planning the Covenant of Redemption in Isaiah 49:6, It is not enough for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob, and to bring back the survivors of Israel; I shall make of you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of the earth (NJB). 

That the 144,000 are actively being sealed is not to suggest that the multitude hasn't been sealed.  That is why most scholars believe that the second vision looks forward in time.  In the earlier passage it seems to be imperative that the faithful remnant be sealed because they are in imminent danger from the wrath this is shortly to come just as the faithful remnant in the Ezekiel passage are in danger and must be sealed.  It helps to remember that St. John's vision takes place in the heavenly Sanctuary and in heaven there is no time which is a devise for earthly living (Rev 4:1-3).

In verses 9-10 the multitude of saints is standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb in worship.  They wear white robes symbolizing righteousness and they carry palm branches.  Palm branches are a symbol of the restoration of God's people to Paradise.  It was during the Feast of Tabernacles (the 7th of the 7 annual Holy Days under the Old Sinai Covenant) that fell in the 7th month, that the people waved palm branches, built shelters out of palm branches, and celebrated the building of the Tabernacle and the establishment of their divine liturgy.  It is probably not a coincidence that the word "tabernacle" occurs in this passage in verse 15.  It is also worth mentioning that 4 of the Holy Feasts of the Old Covenant are each fulfilled in the first Advent of Christ.  See the chart on the Seven Sacred Annual Feasts of the Old Covenant. The palm branches also remind us of Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday) when the people waved palm branches as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem and shouted "Hosanna!" (Jn 12:13; Ps 118:25) in fulfillment of the prophecies of the prophets, especially Psalm 118:24-25 and Zechariah 9:9.  In Revelation 7:9-10 the multitude join in the heavenly liturgy with shouts of "Hosanna!" (Hebrew/Aramaic) = "Salvation" or "Save Us!" The crowd was repeating the cry for the Davidic Messiah from Psalm 118:25 and the saints take up the same acclamation. 

11 All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.  12 They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: "Amen.  Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever.  Amen."  The New Jerusalem translation is the better, more literal translation from the Greek text: Amen.  Praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and strength to our God for ever and ever.  Amen.
The proper position before Christ is on our knees.  Platitudes like: "it doesn't really matter if I kneel at the consecration or not, after all it is what is in my heart that counts" are statements without meaning.  It is our actions that display the intentions of our hearts!  In verse 12 the saints and angels are kneeling, and the saints and angels pronounce 7 themes to God's perfection (7 is one of the "perfect" numbers in the symbolic meaning of numbers in Scripture):  1).praise, 2). glory, 3). wisdom, 4). thanksgiving, 5). honor, 6) power, and 7) strength.

13 Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, "Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?"  I said to him, "My lord, you are the one who knows."  He said to me, "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
One of the elders in the heavenly Sanctuary asks a question in order to get John to look for an answer.  When John confesses that he doesn't know the answer the elder explains that these are the ones who have endured the Great Tribulation, which is translated in the NAB as "time of great distress."  This is the same great trial or Tribulation that Jesus warned his disciples about as He spoke to them on the Mt. of Olives in Matthew 24:20-21 and said: "Pray that you will not have to make your escape in winter or on a Sabbath.  For then there will be great distress, unparalleled since the world began, and such as will never be again" (also see Mk 13:19).   This is the Great Tribulation that Jesus stated would take place during their generation in Matthew 24:34 when He said: "In truth I tell you, before this generation has passed away, all these things will have taken place" (also see Mk 13:30 & Lk 21:32), but it also looks forward the tribulation of all Christian martyrs down through the Ages. 

they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
What is the difference between the way the world sees the Christians who are poor and persecuted and the way God sees those who are persecuted for His sake?  God sees them as conquerors that have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."  They have become united with Christ through His blood and they are standing before God's throne clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  This washing in blood to be made white is an ironic contrast.  It is the promise of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:10: Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

This scene of the great multitude of saints has comforted believers down through the centuries.  St. Pope John Paul II commented on this passage in Revelation 7:2-14, "The people dressed in white robes whom John sees with his prophetic eye are the redeemed, and they form a 'great multitude', which no one could count and which is made up of people of the most varied backgrounds.  The blood of the Lamb, who has been offered in sacrifice for all, has exercised its universal and most effective redemptive power in every corner of the earth, extending grace and salvation to that 'great multitude.' After undergoing the trials and being purified in the blood of Christ, they, the redeemed, are now safe in the Kingdom of God, whom they praise and bless for ever and ever"  (Homily, 1 November 1981).

Responsorial Psalm 24:1-5 ~ The Redeemed will see God's Face
The response is: "Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face."
1 The LORD'S are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it.  2 For he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
3 Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD or who may stand in his holy place?  4 He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain, nor swears deceitfully to his neighbor.
5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD, a reward from God his savior.  6 Such is the race that seeks for him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.

This Psalm was sung on every first day of the week (our Sunday) in the Jerusalem Temple's twice daily liturgical worship services.  It is an encounter between the Lord, the King of Glory, and the righteous believer who has come to worship God in His holy Temple.  The poem, attributed to David of Bethlehem, the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 1:1), begins by proclaiming who the Lord is: He is the creator of the earth (verses 1-2).  The psalm then enumerates the conditions in which people are allowed to approach the Lord in His Temple: they are those who are sinless and whose hearts are clean (in a state of grace).  They are obedient to God and are not deceitful in their dealings with their neighbors; these can enter into God's presence and receive His blessing (verses 3-5). 

The Fathers of the Church saw this psalm being applied to the Christian's soul as God's Temple of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus (St. Ambrose, Expositio psalmi, 118.14; also see 1 Cor 3:10-17).  God is ready to enter the Temple of the Christian's soul in the Sacrament of Baptism.  It is the Christian's prayer that he/she will be ready to open up the gates of his/her soul in faith so Christ, the King of Glory, will enter in, carrying with Him the triumph of His Passion.

The Second Reading 1 John 3:1-3 ~ We Shall See God
1 See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are.  The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  3 Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure as he is pure.

St. John began his letter to the universal Church by pointing his readers to Jesus who changed everything by physically coming into the world (1 Jn 1:1-2).  In this part of his letter, he looks forward to when he and other Christians will see God even more clearly and be with Him more intimately than when they saw Him in Jesus.  St. John reminds us that the greatest sign of God's love is the gift of His Son (Jn 3:16).  It is through our rebirth in water and the Spirit through the Sacrament of Baptism that Jesus has made Christians true children of God (1 Jn 3:1).  This special relationship is a present reality and is also part of the promised life that is to come.  It is because of our transformed life in Christ that we have the hope of one day seeing God face to face (1 Jn 3:2).  In verse 3 St. John describes the hope in Christ's return as so strong that, even in our waiting, we become pure as Jesus is pure.  We are purified through our participation in the Sacraments Christ gave us to keep us free from sin as we make our faith journey to union with the Most Holy Trinity in the heavenly Sanctuary where we shall "see him as he is."  It is the promise Jesus made to us in the Beatitudes when He taught: 8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

The Gospel of Matthew 5:1-12 ~ The Spiritual Law of the New Covenant
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  2 He began to teach them, saying: 3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.  5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.  6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.  7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.  9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven."

The Beatitudes are the introduction to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and are the foundation of God's New Covenant Law, marking the road map or stairway that lights the path to sainthood in Heaven.  Like any road map there is a beginning point of the journey and a destination at the end of the journey, and like a stairway one step must be achieved in faith and obedience before stepping out in faith and obedience to the next.  But this plan is more than a stairway or a road map to an intimate relationship with God on our journey of faith.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and applied through the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Beatitudes, as the Law of the New Covenant people of the Resurrected Christ, are the call to a radically transformed life and the very hinges on which our moral and spiritual lives as Christian believers must turn on a daily basis.  But this is a plan that cannot be achieved on a human level; it is only through the filling and indwelling of the Holy Spirit can this blessedness be empowered and celebrated in the life of the New Covenant Church.  For what is impossible for man (human beings) is possible for God (see the chart on : the Progression of the Beatitudes).  Notice that each blessing is followed by a promise.

The first blessing: 3"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
The word Jesus used for "poor," ptochos in the original Greek, means "poor" but not as in "pauper": one who works for a living but cannot rise above the poverty level (penes in the Greek).  Instead the Greek word ptochos is better translated as "beggar," one who is completely dependent on someone else for support.  In this blessing, it is Jesus' teaching that the first step on the pathway to Heaven is to admit that you cannot make it on your own in this life or in the next.  "Poverty of spirit" stands in contrast to "pride of spirit."  We are "poor in spirit" because we are not self-sufficient; we admit our dependence on God and that we need Him in our lives, rejecting our natural desire for a "self-sufficient spirit."

The first promise: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In yielding our lives to Christ our Savior and through obediently living the Sacraments of our faith throughout our faith journey, we can have confidence that we will receive our promised inheritance of Heaven.  We understand that our inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven is first dependent upon our response to God's grace through faith, which is followed by rebirth through "water and the spirit" of baptism when we cease to be children of the family of Adam and become children in the family of God.  But that is only the first step on the path to the salvation that has been promised to us at the end of the journey. 

The second blessing: 4 Blessed are they who mourn,
Mourning our sins is the second step on the path to salvation.  As we yield to spiritual childhood, admitting poverty of spirit and kneel in His presence, the more clearly we see God.  The more clearly we see God, the more we become aware of our imperfections.  We become humbled in His holy presence and we feel the burden of our sins.  The result is that in becoming aware of our moral failures that we mourn our sins.  To repent and feel genuine sorrow for our sins is a natural outflow of surrender to God through "poverty of spirit." There can be no forgiveness of sin without true repentance.  In 1 John 1:9 the Apostle wrote:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We yearn to be purified in His presence and our plea becomes that of the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 who cried out, mourning his sins, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

The second promise: for they will be comforted.
The International Critical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew makes three very interesting points concerning this promise (see pages 448-49:

  1. The passive tense used is a "divine passive."  It is God who will comfort those who mourn.
  2. The comfort God will offer is not a comfort that can be known in a worldly sense, but it is instead supernatural in that this comfort will be fulfilled only by the coming of the Son of Man into His Kingdom.
  3. It is not the mourning for mourning sake that will receive this divine consolation but God's grace will come to those who mourn the suffering of sin.

Think of the tremendous implications of this divine promise.  It is our Father's promise that the very hands that formed the cosmos and placed the stars in the heavens, the very hands that held the hand of Mary His mother when He was a little child, and the same hands that were stretched across a wooden beam in agony when the Roman soldiers nailed them to the cross; these same hands will wipe away our tears!  The prophet Isaiah promises in Isaiah 25:8 ~ He will destroy death forever.  The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.  This is a promise repeated in Revelation 7:17: ...and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And so in our mourning for sin we will be comforted; but there is more.  The English word "comfort" is derived from the Latin word cumfortare (com-for-tar-ay).  It is the root of the word "fortitude" which means: "that strength or firmness of mind or soul which enables a person to encounter danger or to bear pain with coolness and courage" (The New Webster Dictionary).  So the promise is not just comfort in the sense of being held or sheltered; instead we have the promise that when we mourn our sins and turn to Christ that he will give us the strength and the courage to overcome our own weaknesses and inadequacies so that we can take up our own crosses and follow Him as He commanded in  Mark 8:34-35 when Jesus summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it."  This cleansing of repentance is what gave Peter and the other Apostles and disciples the courage to leave behind every worldly possession to follow Jesus and after the Resurrection to take up their own crosses and to spread the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the known world.  Not only does the Holy Spirit comfort us in our sorrow and repentance, but through living the Sacraments of our faith He gives us the strength to resist sin and also the strength to stand against sin in our community and in the world.  We bear our suffering with a spirit of atonement, reconciliation and love and the result is comfort and strength.

The third blessing: 5 Blessed are the meek,
The third step is humility.  The Greek word praus, [pronounced prah-ooce'], means mild, humble, or meek (see Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, pages 534-35).  The word praus only appears four times in the New Testament: three times in the Gospel of St. Matthew in 5:5 [4], 11:29, 21:5 and once in 1 Peter 3:4.  In both Matthew 11:29 and 21:5 Jesus Himself is called "meek" just like the prophet Moses before Him (see Num 12:3).  In addition to the passage in Matthew 5:5, Blessed are the meek, this same Greek word for "meek" is used in:

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.
Matthew 21:5 Say to daughter Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'
1 Peter 3:4 ...but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle [praus] and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God.

This is another Greek word to which Christians gave a uniquely Christian character, with "meekness" becoming the symbol of a higher Christian virtue as illustrated in these three verses.  The pre-Christian Greek culture meaning of this word expressed an outward conduct that related to only men, and not necessarily in a positive light (see Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament volume I, page 37).  To the pagan Greeks, this word often implied condescension, but to the Christian this word implies submission of the human will to the will of God.

Christians gave the word a quality expressing an inward virtue that is related primarily to God.  Christian "meekness" is based on humility which is expressed in the New Testament as the supernatural quality that is the outgrowth of a renewed nature.  This renewal can only come when we surrender our lives to God and seek His divine will in our lives.  However, this submission is not an indication of weakness.  For the Christian, submission to God's control results in strength; it is strength that is not our own but the strength that comes from God's will working through our lives.  The Bible is full of stories of God intervening in the lives of men and women who call on Him for His help and of stories of men and women willing to help others, but there are very few examples of God intervening in the lives of those who prefer their own plan and the control of their own destiny except in cases where His intervention is divine judgment which is intended to bring about repentance and redemption or His divine plan in the redemption of others (in in St. Paul's case in Acts chapter 9).

The third promise: for they will inherit the land. 
The first beatitude places us before the throne of God.  The second purifies us and the third places us in the hands of the Master as we submit in meekness and humility to His will and His plan for our lives.  There are two ways to interpret the promise associated with God blessing for the meek.  Bible scholars both ancient and modern have seen in this blessing an allusion to Christ's victory in breaking of the power of Satan over the earth.  The first beatitudes to Adam and Eve were the blessings of fertility and dominion over the earth (Gen 1:28).  In our original parents' Fall from grace, Satan began to usurp and pervert these divine blessings.  The blessing of sexual union between a man and a woman was given as a gift by God to be applied only in the context of covenantal marriage (Gen 2:24).  In marriage a man and a woman are given the extraordinary possibility to become co-creators with God in the birth of the next generation.  Abuse of this blessing has led to sin and suffering.  Satan also usurped man's dominion over the earth.  In Jesus' defeat of sin and death on the Cross, Satan's control over the earth and his power to dominate the earth has been thwarted.  No longer does Satan have the power to dominate us because we have been reborn through our baptism into the family of God.  We belong to the God who created and dominates the earth, and as His children and his heirs we inherit the earth.  CCC # 299: "... for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him."

The fourth blessing: 6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Denying our own "self-sufficient spirit," we yield to God in "poverty of spirit," acknowledging that we need Him in our lives and in childlike faith we move forward to take our place at the foot of His throne.  As we draw closer to God we become aware of our sinful nature; we mourn our sins and the sins of the world.  In our sincere repentance Christ atones for our sins and by God's grace we are purified and restored to fellowship with Him.  Our desire is now to surrender our lives as we experience spiritual renewal.  We strive to submit ourselves to His will, offering our lives as useful tools in the hands of the Master of the universe.  As a result of yielding to Him in meekness and humility, we want to be more like Him and our souls hunger and thirst for righteousness just as our physical bodies need food and drink for us to survive physically.  The fourth Beatitude is a pivotal step in our spiritual journey.  In the fourth Beatitude we move from what we need to give to God to the miracle of what God plans to give to us.

Jesus' definition of the righteous believer in the fourth beatitude is a person who "hungers and thirsts" to live "rightly" according to the will of God for his life.  In St. Jerome's commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jerome wrote that Jesus is not suggesting we have a legalistic "letter of the law" desire for righteousness but that we should ardently seek righteousness as necessary to our spiritual life as food and water are necessary for our physical life (Jerome, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew 5.6).  In the Law of the New Covenant, Jesus has raised the bar in His demand for "rightness" with God; it is not enough to merely submit with a regimented obedience to the Old Covenant Law as the Pharisees interpreted the path to salvation.  In the New Covenant we must actively, diligently, and relentlessly seek righteousness as though our very lives depended upon it, for indeed it does.

Righteousness as expressed in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament through the Holy Spirit inspired writers is for the most part the gracious gift (grace) of God extended to mankind whereby all who have faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer-Messiah are bathed in the blood of the Lamb of God and are brought into the "rightness" of their relationship with the Most Holy Trinity.  "Righteousness" then for New Covenant believers is linked to Christ's sacrificial death on the Cross and to a state of grace; it is the grace freely given through the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the worldthe Chosen One of God (Jn 1:29, 35).

The fourth promise: for they will be satisfied. 
Some translations read: for they shall be filled.  In this promise the Greek word which is translated as "satisfied" or "filled" is chortazo [khor-tad'-zo; with the Semitic "tz" dipthong], meaning "to gorge, or to supply food in abundance; feed, fill, satisfy" (Strong's Concordance  #5526).  Who is the "righteous One" who satisfies as no one else can satisfy and who fills us as no one else can fill us?  There can only be one answer, Jesus Christ!  This beatitude has a promise that is also a consequence if the blessing is not fulfilled.  If we aren't righteous, we won't be "satisfied," or as it is sometimes translated, we won't be "filled."  Each of the beatitudes, unlike the negative statements of the Ten Commandments, is given in a positive statement.  Yet, a negative is implied if the blessing is not fulfilled. The implications of realizing this implied negative in each beatitude is much more serious when one considers what will be lost if this spiritual perfection is not achieved. 

This is the turning point in the Beatitudes.  Up to this point the focus has been on the most basic aspects of our relationship with God.  Up until now the focus has been our need:

But now the focus has been changed to our need for union with the fullness of God; therefore, the focus turns to Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity who fulfills of our desire for union with the fullness of God Himself in the gift of the Eucharist.  In the Eucharist, the Most Holy Trinity gives Himself completely to the soul who hungers and thirsts for Him.  Jesus gives Himself completely in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  He comes to us in the miracle of Transubstantiation as the Bridegroom giving all of Himself to His Bride, the Church.

The fifth blessing: 7Blessed are the merciful,
Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we are filled with the humanity and divinity of Christ.  With Jesus living within us, it is our desire to be more like Him.  Just has He shared His merciful love with everyone, so now we too, in our love for Him, feel the desire to let His mercy flow through us to everyone we meet.

The Greek word for "merciful" in this passage is the adjective eleemon [el-eh-ay'-mone].  In the Old Testament Hebrew being "merciful" meant the outward manifestation of pity, but in the New Covenant this expression of mercy and pity is to be expressed by one who is actively compassionate as God is actively compassionate; it is a compassion generated internally but expressed externally as acts of mercy.  Although compassion, a feeling of sympathy, is part of mercy [com meaning "with", and passion meaning "suffering" so "with suffering"], mercy differs from compassion in that mercy is the active practice of compassion in the readiness to assist those in need.  Therefore, the "merciful" are those who are not passive in showing love and compassion but who take an active role in bringing aid to those who suffer.  This same Greek word for "mercy" is used to describe Jesus Christ as our High Priest in Hebrews 2:17 and it is used for those who are called to live in mercy and compassion "like God" as here in Matthew 5:7 as well as in Luke 6:35-36 which ends with the command "Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful." 

The fifth promise: for they will be shown mercy. 
This 5th beatitude promise is linked to the 5th petition of the "Our Father" prayer: And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. What is implied in the second phrase of the petition is that our plea for forgiveness will not be heard unless we first forgive others who have wronged us.  It is interesting that this is the 5th petition in the Lord's Prayer that can be linked to the 5th beatitude and its promise.  In the significance of numbers in Scripture, 5 is the number signifying grace.

Our willingness to forgive and grant mercy is so important that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will return to address this particular petition on granting mercy and forgiveness after finishing the Our Father prayer in Matthew 6:14-15.  Jesus will also continue teaching the importance of extending God's mercy to us in our relationships with others throughout His ministry.  When we forgive those who have hurt us deeply, we cooperate in God's grace.  Forgiving others allows us to see how Christ could forgive those who lied at His trial and nailed Him to the Cross, which includes all of us for we are all culpable in His death through our own sin.  When we are filled with Christ's righteousness, we look upon the face of our enemy and see the face of the Christ who loved and forgave.  Love is stronger than sin.  The sin of failing to forgive binds and wounds the soul so much more deeply than the barbs of your enemy.  Forgive your enemy, set your soul free and feel the power of God's grace working in you!  See CCC # 2844.

The sixth blessing: 8 Blessed are the clean of heart,
As we grow closer to Christ on our spiritual journey, we feel the need to empty ourselves of worldly attractions and concerns and to fill our entire being with the love of Jesus our Savior, becoming an imitation of Christ in our lives.  Our cry becomes the cry of David in Psalm 51:12 (verse 10 in some translations):  A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

The Greek word for "pure" is katharos.   It is an adjective meaning "pure as in being cleansed."  The heart, or kardia in Greek, is the most vital organ in the human body.  We think of our hearts as the internal instrument of our emotions but the ancients did not understand the function of a heart in this way.  For the peoples of ancient times, the Jews, Greeks or Romans, different body parts had different physiological functions.  The Jews believed that anger was situated in the nose, love, compassion and most other emotions in the kidney, liver and bowels. To the people of Jesus' time the heart reflected the total substance of a man or woman; it signified the inward moral quality of a person as opposed to what is visible.  Hearing this beatitude the Jews and Israelites would think of the heart as the center of the faculties and personality, the seat of knowledge and understanding and not just feelings but also thoughts, words, decisions and actions proceed from the heart. The inspired writers of Scripture recognized that depravity and deceit emerge from the human heart as sin, doing its greatest damage to the inward life from which sin then defiles the whole man or woman (see Mt 15:19-20).  But the inspired writers of Sacred Scripture also recognized that the heart represented the hidden depths of one's moral and spiritual being and regarded the heart as the focus of divine influence from which a man or woman could be purified by God from the inside out (see Rom 2:15; Acts 15:9 and 1 Pt 3:4).

Purity of heart can only come about through the work of God the Holy Spirit. He is our gift from the Father and the Son to be the source of living water welling up from the heart of Christ and flowing out to every believer (see Jn 7:38).  He puts Christ in our hearts, circumcising our old hearts and giving us a new heart in conforming us to His image.  It is Christ dwelling in us who gives us a truly purified interior self.  When St. Paul wrote I live now not I but Christ lives in me in Galatians 2:20, he wanted us to understand that our deepest identity is to be Christ; it is the only way we will be able to return to the pre-Eden "image of God."  And what is the result?  It is that whatever you do, or say, or see reflects the image of God.  St. Paul wrote to St. Titus in Titus 1:15, Everything is pure to the pure!  A pure heart beats to the living revelation of Jesus Christ!

The sixth promise: for they will see God. 
The inspired writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews links "seeing God" with holiness, with comes through purity of heart, and peacemaking: Seek peace with all people and the holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord.  Filling our hearts with Christ produces a purity of spirit that produces in our hearts peace that overflows out of our hearts and touches each person we meet.  A right relationship with God leads to the desire for a right relationship with others.  When our clean hearts overflow with Christ's love we are promised ...the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). The result is that we become His emissaries; bearers of Christ bearing peace and we will see the face of Christ in the face of each person with whom we share His love.

The seventh blessing: 9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
This is the seventh step on the pathway to salvation.  With our pure hearts purified by Christ living in us, we actively seek to extend His peace to others.  St. Augustine wrote that the peacemakers are not only peaceful but that they are active makers of peace.  They encourage peace around them by healing alienations and discord and bringing about reconciliation.  But this peace begins within them as they conform themselves to the image of God, and then the peace they generate diffuses from them to the world (Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Book I chapter 2.9).   This is the kind of peacemaking we must seek.  Internal peace transformed into militantly spiritual and joyously unquenchable peace shared with our family, our friends, and the world as our witness of a life conformed to the Prince of Peace! 

This promise has two dimensions which humanity lost in the Fall from grace:

  1. Humanity lost that degree of intimacy known as divine sonship/daughtership which had not been experienced since the time of our first parents before the Fall.
  2. Humanity lost its "likeness" of God in the Fall; it is this restored likeness to God, a child "in the image of the Father" that Christ gave us in Christian Baptism.  It is the likeness and image of grace that was the condition of Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall from grace.

It will help to understand the dimensions of this promise to look carefully at what St. John wrote in his Gospel concerning this rebirth into the family of God: But to those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God, to those who believed in his name who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself (Jn 1:11-13 NJB).  Think of the power of the statement in this verse!  St. John wrote in John 1:12,  But to those who did accept him, he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name.   The word in Greek that is translated here as "power" is exousia.  In other Bible translations it may be rendered as "right."  The use of exousia in this passage does not indicate only the possibility or the ability to become "children of God", but legitimate right derived from the authority of the Word.  And it is only through the Word that we have this "power."

That Christ gave us the "power" is the same way of saying that He gave us a free gift and that gift was sanctifying grace.  This gift is a supernatural infusion of grace, which is extended through the sacrament of Baptism to everyone.  The only condition is that we have faith.  St. Athanasius explained it this way: "The Son of God became man in order that the sons of men, the sons of Adam, might become sons of God ... He [Adam] is the son of God by nature; we, by grace" (St Athanasius, The Incarnation). This is the gift of divine son-ship and we cannot truly call ourselves "children of God" until this miracle regenerates us with "new life" into the family of God.  It is what Jesus revealed to Nicodemus in John 3:3-5 concerning rebirth, or being born "from above" by water and the Spirit.

The seventh promise: for they will be called children of God.
It is interesting that peace making and sonship/daughtershhip are brought together in this blessing and its promise.  This supernatural power of sonship is manifested in us through Christ's peace by the work of the 3rd Person of the Most Holy Trinity, through God the Holy Spirit.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit as God's children, we are commanded to bear much "fruit" by Christ who has grafted us onto Himself as the "true vine" (Jn 15:1).  The "fruit" or works we bear is an outpouring of the gifts the Holy Spirits imparts to us. The peace we generate is part of that outpouring.  St. Basil wrote: "Through the Holy Spirit we are restored to paradise, led back to the Kingdom of heaven, and adopted as children, given confidence to call God 'Father' and to share in Christ's grace, called children of light and given a share in eternal glory" (quoted from CCC # 736).

Summary of the blessings and promises (verse 10 is seen by some scholars as the eighth blessing and promise): 10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven."
Notice that in verse 10 the promise is repeated from verse 5: the kingdom of heaven.  In Matthew 5:11, Jesus repeats the beatitude in verse 10 but changes from the third person address to the second person, Blessed are you...  In directing this blessing personally ("you") to the disciples and the Apostles, Jesus is acknowledging them as successors to the holy prophets of Yahweh who in their obedience to the will of God perished for their faithfulness.  This is a fate that will befall all of the Apostles with the exception of John Zebedee who will suffer imprisonment and other forms of persecution for his commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus does not make the job description for "Emissaries [Apostolos] of God" particular appealing in this life but there can be no doubt the promise of the long term benefits are eternally great.  The promise of the "kingdom of heaven" is repeated from the first Beatitude's promise in 5:3.

If the Beatitudes are the conditions for Christian character that Jesus establishes for gaining entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, then verses 10-12 are the invitation to put these spiritual precepts of the New Covenant Law into practice.  This is Jesus' job description for a disciple: short term trials followed by long very long term rewards.  Jesus is warning His disciples that they are taking their place as the successors to the holy prophets of old and that many will suffer the same fate as the Old Testament prophets: persecution, suffering and possibly death.  The man or woman who stands for God stands against the world and the world can be very unforgiving. This is Jesus' warning that if you chose to live the beatitudes you will receive the eternal blessings of the righteous, but you will also experience the temporal enmity of the wicked. 

Jesus' message is clear, to follow Christ and to do what he commands means risking everything in this present life to gain a future eternal life.  Those who refuse to "take up their cross" to follow Christ and who act for their own satisfaction and temporal gain, endanger their eternal salvation.  It is only when a person dies to self and lives for Christ that he or she unselfishly gives his or her life to God and to others whether in marriage, or in parenting, or in Christian leadership and service, or in acts of love and charity to others.  The Christian life is based on self-denial: "There is no Christianity without the Cross!" ( see CCC# 459; 1 Cor 1:23 ).

Catechism References:
Revelation 7:2-8 (CCC 1138); 7:2-3 (CCC 1296); 7:9 (CCC 775, 1138); 7:10-12 (CCC 2642)
1 John 3 (CCC 2822); 3:1 (CCC 1692); 3:2 (CCC 163, 1023, 1161, 1720, 2519, 2772); 3:3 (CCC 2345)
Matthew 5:3-12 (CCC 1716); 5:3 (CCC 544, 2546); 5:6 (CCC 764); 5:7 (CCC 2763); 5:8 (CCC 1720, 2518); 5:9 (CCC 2305, 2330); 5:11-12 (CCC 520)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014